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Hair

Binyavanga Wainaina

G21 AFRICA Correspondent

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Binyavanga Wainaina
Photo of Binyavanga Wainaina.
Somebody somewhere should start a museum of Black hair. If art is about suffering, surely what we darkies go through to keep our hair up to trend is worthy of a biennale.

In the 70s, the chafe of polyester was not the only torture Kenyan boys had to deal with. There was the kinyozi (barber). In my home town, there was a street full of kinyozi's. It was my dad's job to take us to the kinyozi every last Saturday of the month. Normally the prospect of a day out with my Dad was filled with pleasure. His wallet was always full of crisp hundred shilling notes -- and he had not read that rule book mothers inherit (together with eyes in the backs of their heads) that says, "not more than one ice-cream and I will not relent even if you bang you head against the window and have a full-blown tantrum in the middle of the market with the ice-cream men looking at me as if I some sort of child-abuser and anti-ice-cream -communist."

Kids are ruthless, and my Dad was mostly a softie, racked with guilt that work kept him too busy to spend enough time with us. But whenever we went to the barbershop, I hated the man. I frequently requested assistance from Jesuschristomiyty, but he always seemed to be busy cloning fish and baking bread.

Kikuyu (my mother tongue, which I speak very badly,) can be a harsh and blunt language. Often somebody speaking Kikuyu seems to be sneering at you. It doesn't help that the language is the street language of money in Kenya. Walking into the barbershop, I was always assaulted by wide, crocodile grins and racuous greetings in Kikuyu. The barbers were always in 1950 style military cuts.

On the wall, there would be the ubiquitious side profiles of improbably neat cuts, right next to the large, red NO CREDIT! signs. Pictures of Harry Belafonte (damn you!) and US Marines were popular, as well.

James Brown, The Jacksons, Osibisa or Earth Wind and Fire never have, and never will be seen in any African barbershop. Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix had dealings with the devil (just look at their hair, bad for business!) Jesus had a crew-cut. Mohammed Ali was okay, but he was a boxer, and boxers were allowed some privileges for having their heads bashed regularly.

In school, only Ali Saleh managed to get away with an afro. His hair so impressed Liza M., the prissiest girl in school, that she kissed him and showed him her panties. He was an Arab and his hair could grow a couple of inches during break. Besides, he went to the Indian barber whose only torture was a bottle of coconut oil. Ali frequently came to school reeking of swahili coconut curry.

I was well-known at the barbers. One time I managed to wriggle out of the chair and spent the rest of the week with a halfro. This did not happen again. There was always somebody to hold me down while the barber performed root-canal on my scalp. There were no electric razors in those days. The barber would pick two combs; one small, vomit-yellow round brush with hard, plump bristles. Its job is to 'gwaruza', (literally 'scratch') the hair back till you look like Ray Parker Junior.

This phase was known as 'plough'.

I always had a string of swellings on my fore-head after this assault. After this, he would bring out the mzungu-comb (white-man's comb,) a deceptively delicate and fine-toothed number. It's job was to 'fungua' (open) the hair.

This process was known as 'harrowing'

It is generally at this point that the human straight-jackets were needed. The barber would start the comb at the front, and run it through without pause to the back. On more than one occasion a few teeth broke and the barber cursed the thick jungle that was my hair.

This was just the starter. I really started to holler when the barber would rub his hands in anticipation as he went up to the shelf lined with rows and rows of gleaming stainless steel. The clipper would be examined in detail. Is it oiled? Are the teeth clear of obstruction?

The fingers would be exercised, knuckles cracked. My head would be forced down, and the combine harvester would begin its work. Of course, it would cut the opposite direction from which you comb your hair.

Those old clippers had no levels. One comb cuts all. It would dig into the base of my scalp and start cutting. Every few seconds, it would choke and entangle itself in the forest.

Curses. Screams.

My sister had it much worse. Girls had to have their hair straightened or plaited. Straightened meant a metal comb ,like my 'harrow', that had sat for some minutes on a gas fire. Plaited meant pulled as high as it would go, woven, and tied with balls and balls of wool or raffia. These would be pulled again and shaped in the fashion of the day. 'Pineapple' was okay, but Mango slanted sidways, and that meant some extra-special pulling.

Years passed and then this skinny little man with breathy lyrics and lots of moans, groans, and squeaks. Breathy lyrics changed the way we farmed our hair. Kurly-Kit took Kenya by storm. Men found themselves in hair-salons, gossiping about conditioners, and protein treatments , as the lye slowly fried their scalps. I remember one hairdresser laughing at some screaming men and telling them, " Let it cook. Labour lasts hours."

Public transport vehicles invested in industrial-strength detergents for their windows. Sales of paper-towels went through the roof. Frequent trips to the toilet were necessary to apply 'curl activator'. Ali's days as the class stud were over. Hair-Glo was much cooler than Patel's Coconut Oil.

The ultimate insult became, "You've got growth." Gelatine left the larder and found its way to bathroom cabinets. Best of all, many kinyozi's closed down. Those that remained open had electric clippers, and photos of Michael Jackson trying to pull his crotch out.

Then the Gulf war came, and oil prices rose so high we couldn't afford the grease.

My present dreadlocks horrify my father. To him they mean a descent into drugs and anarchy. He also worries about the insects I am breeding (he worked with pyrethrum insecticides for 35 years ).

The way he talks, you'd think Black men have never been vain about their hair.

The Kuria and Turukana peoples in Kenya would weave their hair into vast sculptures, which were often supported by wire, and shaped with sheep-fat and red-clay. Men would travel around with a wooden 'pillow' shaped like a catapault. Its job was to keep the hair fresh while they slept.

Masai men, to this day, are experts at braiding hair.

Women are supposed to shave theirs clean. In the mid-eighties, masai braids became very fashionable in Nairobi. Many Masais in Nairobi worked as security-guards. No moran (adult initiate of man-hood) will run from a fight, and they can club a moving target on the head from 50 metres.

Girls left their salons and slow-burns in droves, and queued at the gates of factories and Westlands mansions, while Masai Braves did their hair and advised them about dandruff and scalp-rash.

Who said African men don't have a feminine side?



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